The People of India, Language
Sino-Tibetan languages, Dravidian languages, rustics, single language, state borders
There are two great language families on the Indian subcontinent: the Indo-Iranian (or Indo-Aryan) branch of the Indo-European language family, most of which are spoken in the north, and the Dravidian languages, most of which are spoken in the south. The other major language groups are the Sino-Tibetan languages along the Himalayan ridge, with many languages spoken by few people, and the Austro-Asiatic languages of some tribal peoples. All these language families stretch far back in history and have influenced one another over centuries.
Indo-European languages stem originally from Sanskrit. Present-day languages in this family formed in the 14th and 15th centuries. These include Hindi and Urdu, which are similar as spoken languages. Hindi, spoken mainly by Hindus, is written in script called Devanagari and draws on Sanskrit vocabulary. Urdu is spoken mostly by Muslims and uses Persian Arabic script. Tamil is the oldest of the four main Dravidian languages, with a literary history that begins in the 1st century ad.
More than 1,500 “Indian mother tongues” were listed by the census in 1961; 110 of them were deemed to be languages, with the rest designated as dialects. Eighteen of these Indian languages, plus English, have been given official status in India by federal or state governments. Hindi is the main language of more than 40 percent of the population. It was therefore made India’s official language in 1965. English, which was associated with British rule, was retained as an option for official use because some non-Hindi speakers, particularly in Tamil Nadu, opposed the official use of Hindi. English is spoken by as many as 5 percent of Indians, and various Dravidian languages are spoken by about 25 percent. No single language other than Hindi, however, can claim speakers among even 10 percent of Indians. Many Indians speak more than one language, especially those who live in cities or near state borders, which were redrawn in 1956 in part to conform to linguistic boundaries. Because the languages of both northern and southern families are internally related, much like the Romance and Germanic languages of Europe, learning a second language is not difficult.
The many local languages and dialects in India are politically and socially significant. A politician, for example, may use the local dialect when campaigning in a village, switch to the official state language when speaking in a town, and then use Hindi or English to address parliament. The language one speaks can also limit one’s opportunities. People who use a local dialect are often identified as rustics or lower class, and they suffer discrimination. The spread of primary education, cinema, radio, and television is likely to enhance the standing of the state languages. India’s growing number of links to the global community are also likely to preserve English as the preferred language of elite education.
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